For years there have been fennel plants on my small terraces, first in Brooklyn, and now in Harlem. I planted them initially not for food, but to reach up and sideways without using too much real estate. They create an airy, feathery sense of height in areas that are confined and where perceptions of space need to be challenged.
I also cook with fennel seeds. For recipes and step-by-step instructions, see below.
Photography by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista.
Above: The fine fronds of bronze fennel appeal to me especially and are a beautiful foil for the predominant terrace-green or for the deep red of roses.
Above: The umbels of fennel flowers appear in late summer, fine yellow umbrellas that are very popular with every kind of flying pollinator. Flowers continue to appear on the delicate scaffolding of stalks after the first frosts. I pick them for casual posies that turn our supper table civilized. While fennel is a famous Mediterranean sun lover, I have found that it does well with a half day of shade, too. It is a versatile plant that you can grow with ease in a wide range of situations. All it asks is that you do not overwater it.
Above: Toward the end of summer and into fall the most mature flowers begin to set seed, pale green and sweetly anise-y. I often use them green, and leave others to dry so that I can store them through winter, in bunches that hang from our high, parlor level ceiling.
Above: There is only one pest that has ever bothered my fennel plants, but it is so voracious that I have to keep my eyes peeled for it every year, before my plants are stripped. Swallowtail caterpillars, the striped larvae of the vivid butterfly, love to feed on fennel leaves. If you leave the pajama gang on a plant, all the leaves will disappear in a few days. I generally budget one plant just for them, and move all the larvae there when they appear, in phased attacks, through the summer. They like parsley, too, so that is also a good decoy for the striped destroyers.
Above: When I think of cooking with fennel, I think of garlic. The appearance of the first green seeds on my plants coincides with the end of the curing period of my friend Frank’s garlic harvest. As soon as the gorgeous bunch I have ordered from Hudson Clove shows up at the door, I get to work with a pestle and mortar.
Above: It was a River Café Cookbook (London, not Brooklyn!) that first steered me to the timeless combination of garlic with fennel seed. The recipe called for a paste, with chile, to be rubbed into a pork shoulder, which was then cooked forever. Over my fennel-growing years I adapted this to a pork belly, instead, which is easier to find and more affordable in my hood. (The recipe for my own slow-cooked pork belly with fennel and garlic is in the November chapter of my book, 66 Square Feet–A Delicious Life.)
Above: The paste is very easy to make. Quantities are unimportant, as long as the ratio remains roughly 1 to 4. As in 1 tablespoon of fennel seeds (fresh or dry) to 4 tablespoons of garlic, crushed and chopped. Pound or chop the seeds and garlic until as smooth as possible. Adding lemon zest to taste is never a bad idea. The pungent paste, with a hefty pinch of salt and a slick of olive oil, makes an eye popping but stunning raw dip for pieces of good sourdough bread.
Above: Fennel seed and its fall season have a natural affinity for woodsy mushrooms. The aroma of cooked mushrooms folds around the sharper anise notes to make an addictive mouthful. I top large portabellos with a mixture of chopped scallions, panko breadcrumbs, fennel and garlic paste, and a little olive oil to moisten, and roast them for 45 minutes in a very hot oven.
Above: Smaller mushrooms work just as well, and mushrooms a la Grecque have been a staple of my eating life, ever since my mom brought home a big fat Paul Bocuse cookbook. They are good warm or at room temperature, with juices that are so intensely flavored that I have been known to lick the plate.
Mushrooms á la Grecque
What defines á la Grecque? Lemon juice, olive oil, fennel, and coriander. The acid and oil emulsify at the last moment.
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup white wine
- 2 fennel fronds, with stalk
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, or about four seedheads of fennel
- 1 celery stalk
- 2 whole cloves of garlic in their skins
- 20 black peppercorns
- 20 coriander seeds, toasted
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 pound fresh button or small portabello mushrooms, de-stalked
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Squeeze of lemon juice (about 2 teaspoons)
- Salt to taste
Use a wide saucepan that will accommodate the mushrooms in a single layer. Combine the water, wine, fennel fronds, fennel seeds or heads, celery, garlic, peppercorns, coriander, bay leaves, and sugar in the saucepan. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the button mushrooms, topside down, and lower heat to medium-high. As they cook, they exude a lot of liquid: when the caps start to fill with mushroom juices (in about 10 to 12 minutes), flip them. Cook another 12 to15 minutes or until a tested mushroom is tender.
After the mushrooms are cooked, and the pan juices are reduced by half, taste, and add salt. Still over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and the lemon juice. This will cause the sauce to emulsify. Taste again. The result should be salty-sweet-sour in equal proportions.
Turn the mushrooms and their sauce into a shallow bowl and serve at once, with bread for mopping (or a spoon, for the Paleo-people). They are very good the next day, too, at room temperature.
For more fall recipes from Marie’s garden, see:
And to see her garden in Harlem? Go to Garden: Visit: 66 Square Feet (Plus) on a Harlem Terrace.